As it relates to startups (and investing in them), the past week’s stock market correction (which still may be going) is just what the doctor ordered. Who knows why it happened exactly — sending a message to the Fed, international market fears, people realizing P/Es were too high, blah blah blah….
The net effect now after some stability is the correction was medicine everyone needed. More specifically, I think the correction and intense social & traditional media focus on it actually makes this better for everyone in the startup ecosystem:
First, writers, analysts, bloggers, and arm chair Twitter economists now have more to write about that timely, global, and more hard-nosed. They can go up to a founder or investor and simply ask “Well, did you crap your pants?” The press has been somewhat reluctant to balance cheerleading entrepreneurship with asking key fundamental questions.
Second, investors can now leverage recent market gyrations to negotiate down valuations. For years, investors couldn’t do this at the risk of losing a deal or offending a founder, but now everyone understands that a bit more balanced has been restored to the ecosystem, and investors (may) get some lower prices.
And, Third, founders avoided catastrophe. If the market kept sliding, many investors would’ve been fine (with bruised portfolio metrics), and writers/bloggers would’ve had a field day, but entrepreneurs, founders, and very early-stage employees (and frankly many rank and file) would’ve been in a real jam. Runways could’ve started to compress. People could’ve jumped ship to work at a safer job. This jolt was a nice reality check and doesn’t seem to affect the long-term positive outlook for technology seeping into the world.
For these three reasons, the recent market volatility may just have been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Back in May, just three months ago, the inaugural “On-Demand Conference” was a hit in San Francisco. That conference concluded with a lively ending where a debate among investors brewed over the issues facing contract workers in the gig economy. [video archive]
Now, just three months later, it’s as if we live in a new world. Some state governments across the country have issues preliminary rulings about worker classification; a parade of well-funded on-demand startups have made headlines by proactively converting some or all of their contractors to W-2′s; presidential candidates running for office in 2016 have brought the topic into debates and headlines; and all of it has come together as a bonafide mainstream news topic.
While things are changing quickly, some of the world’s best venture capitalists have grown wary of the sector. Some have warned that on-demand consumer solutions are saturated, and that not everything needs to be on-demand, and that the high capital intensity in scaling (often without technology moats) all make for a dubious investment climate.
These are are, indeed, valid concerns. Just as the last conference generated substantive debate and featured an entire day of highly-focused content from the startups and operators building these companies, our aim with Act 2 is to double-down on our organizational efforts and create the space where the most pressing issues can be surfaced and debated.
To that end, we have a All-Star East Coast lineup for the event. Click here to see the agenda and browse through the names. We will have managers and GMs from companies like Uber, Instacart, Postmates and many more; we will have some of NYC’s best investor minds on stage; and we will have tech media representing The New York Times, VentureBeat, Scientific American, Forbes, and more.
Finally, and a bit selfishly, I”m excited to share that I will open up the day’s events in a fireside chat with Albert Wenger from Union Square Ventures. For those of you who read Continuations, Albert’s blog, you’ll know he’s written extensively about Uber and ridesharing technologies, about how workers are classified and treated, and his argument to call for Universal Basic Income as a policy in anticipation of a world that may be automated by advancements in technology.
It all has the makings for a fantastic event. I’m looking forward to it. For more information and to register, click here.
I have been waiting for the “independent contractor vs full employee” debate to go mainstream. It’s the 1099ers vs the W-2′s. It’s happening, right now. This past week, I was invited to be on NPR for a great discussion hosted by KCRW for “To The Point,” which included Noam Scheiber from The New York Times, Ben White from Politico, David Rolf from SEIU, and yours truly. You can listen to our conversation here, it’s 32 minutes and though I’m biased, it’s a great survey of where we are today, how politics are going to get involved (a la Hillary), and how powerful Uber’s moves are vis a vis the rest of the small but growing on-demand sector:
Back in September 2012, before I started investing, , I wrote a post for my TechCrunch column titled, “Recruiting The New Labor Force.” In that post, which is worth re-reading carefully, I mentioned there is an underbelly to any new trend, such as the on-demand sector:
As with any new wave, there is an underbelly. These new companies are more efficient at routing a freelancer’s time, assuming there’s enough demand. Being an actual freelancer may suit some just fine, for a while, but eventually, I’d imagine many of them may want more predictable, more reliable forms of employment — a sentiment many Lyft and Sidecar drivers expressed to me during my many rides with them. These folks often were in between jobs, or in some kind of transitional phase of their lives. The way forward could be that companies like Postmates or Instacart provide that softer landing for those moving in and out of the formal labor market, or perhaps they themselves turn into real companies that fully employ freelancers, more along the model that Exec seems to be carving out, as a staffing solutions company.
Speaking of fulfilling requests, those are usually completed by humans enabled by software. Right now, with the bottom-third (or so) of the labor force in a mix of freelance, hourly, or contract employment (if employed at all), startups are competing for labor at a fierce rate. In the Bay Area, where many of these services start, it’s not unusual for companies in this category to have more consumer demand than they can handle, all constrained by the fact that they can’t hire enough drivers, enough skilled workers, and so forth. With mobile, thankfully, workers can work when they choose, and startups can access labor at the edge of the network, often at will.
At some point, this was going to turn into a bigger issue. It started with some lawsuits here and there. FedEx and Amazon also have some similar legal things going on. Then the California Commission made a ruling against Uber, in favor of drivers being deemed employees. During this time, I began to invest in some companies, like Managed By Q, which proactively addressed the issue by creating on-ramps for 1099ers to move up in the company and gain W-2 status, as well as new tools for companies and contractors like Payable, which help simplify tax and reporting for both companies and workers. Recently, we put together The On-Demand Conference in SF in May 2015 (videos here) and are planning for v2 of this event to be in NYC on September 15: www.ondemandconference.co
Finally, I will briefly lay out how each side of the debate has merit:
For workers – Clearly, we can agree that everyone wants to make sure that contractors have the ability to feel secure in terms of health, safety, and not being fired without cause. In a world where contracting may be the norm, how will people enjoy the safety and security provided by insurance traditionally? On the flip side, just tying this all to being a W-2 does have some costs — as in my response to Nabeel, the flexibility in schedules for a contractor could be undervalued and hard to quantify in such analyses. I myself have had a flexible schedule for the past 10+ years and I oftentimes value that above most other things. I imagine many others do, too. Some jobs allow for it, but being a contractor participating in a few labor markets can offer real time flexibility as well as the option of moving from one geography to another. As you listen to the NPR discussion, you’ll note my comments at the end — the genie is out of the bottle, Uber isn’t going away, and governments will have less power, relatively speaking, on how to shape this moving forward. The cost of more formal ties between employer and employee or contractor may end up being flexibility, which is why I’m writing all of this and hoping companies will follow Managed By Q’s lead and offer a range of choices for the best and most loyal employees to pursue.
A year ago, I wasn’t sure if the “On-Demand Economy” (ODE) was the real thing or just a fad. I’d keep asking myself, “How can this persist?” and plenty of other people would ask me the same thing, given that out of 70 or so investments I’ve made, over 20 of them touch the on-demand stack in some way. Now as 2015 approaches the midway point, I have since gained more confidence this isn’t a fad, but the early stages of an on-demand world where we will summon goods and services via our watches, via single-purpose connected devices, and perhaps even without consciously thinking about it. Geographically, ODE services are tailor-made for the developing world and urban centers in Asia, especially as those consumers and labor suppliers go straight to mobile devices and skip the laptop and web generations entirely.
So, it was even more good fortune when one of my most frequent seed-stage coinvestors in ODE, Pascal, pinged me on IM to say he’s putting together a conference with my friend Misha @ Tradecraft. I jumped in and we are going to co-host this event on May 19 in San Francisco. Pascal had a good base committed, and so I called up Bastian, Max and Apoorva, Tony, Tri, Dan, Nick to participate — they all loved the idea, as did all the great tech writers who have cover the trend, like Ryan, Eric, Katie, Leena, and even Liz after her breakout series on the topic from 2014. I called up other friends who have also made core investments in ODE, and we are happy to have Satya, Steve, and Simon round out the event. As a bonus, I called up Shervin and convinced him to do a 1:1 Fireside Chat with me earlier in the day.
If you are a potential founder in ODE, work in the sector, want to learn more, cover the sector as a journalist, or invest in it, this is a can’t-miss conference. Here are more details:
Date: May 19, 2015 (all day) Location: Broadway Studios, North Beach, SF (map) Website: (link) Tickets: (register)
There’a a lot of bubble talk again. I’m so confused now I don’t know what to make of it. Here’s what I do know: This is a big up market. There’s a lot of money in the angel and seed and crowdfunding markets. Depending on what stats you believe, the number of microVC funds with $50M or less has exploded in the last few years. And, we have all read that there’s more money moving into the late-stage private markets, with institutions like hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and all sorts of people clamoring to get a piece in the next Airbnb — including Airbnb.
Yet, on the other hand, we are living in a time of (1) technology proliferating into the real world and (2) the simultaneous development of groundbreaking platforms….we all know this, but consider that mobile phones are making the largest market the world has ever seen; or that Uber, Snapchat, and Apple’s iOS ecosystem and mobile efforts are pushing technology out into the real world, all around the Earth; and that besides mobile computing spreading with better and fancier sensors, we have drones (an estimated $100B market over the next 8-10 years); innovation in financial technology and automation, like the Blockchain, which despite the ups and downs, could be incredibly disruptive; we have crowdfunding across a number of verticals. I could go on and on.
I personally tend to agree w/ Albert’s assessment, here. I’ll quote his closing paragraph:
Because [this period of private growth] is happening gradually and because the logic looks internally consistent (and add to that the low interest rates), this could continue to go on for quite some time. This strikes me as the classic case of Nassim Taleb‘s point about fat tailed distributions where it is the higher order moments (kurtosis) that really matter. So the process looks very smooth and gradual for quite some time until there is a sudden and fairly violent swing.
All this said, we are all analyzing what we know. What about the unknowns. What about an exogenous shock to the system, even if the system is resilient? I know we cannot predict that, but it is a part of life, and any analysis should also include those potentially known unknowns the exogenous shocks:
Geopolitical, general unrest could foment in parts of the world as it has for the past 4-5 years. To date, the U.S. has been isolated from this.
Macroeconomic, like how the price of oil just dropped. People say “the macro” doesn’t affect technology innovation, and that is true, but it does affect capital markets, and that could have an impact on crowdfunding, smaller funds, and IPO markets.
Natural Disasters, a calamity on the scale of Sendai/Fukushimia (let’s hope not) on the west coast would rattle business as usual.
Adjacent Bubbles, such as student loan debt could mount and cause instability in other financial institutions.
Shifts In Power, as in what we will have next summer in America, leading into the 2016 election.
Loss of Public Market Confidence,Albert commented back on Twitter that it could also be a few public companies which slow growth and perhaps even stall that triggers this, so we have another possibility.
I have been tweeting about some unease I have about the local economy, not out of any great wisdom or experience, but just noticing some random signals. Since then, of course, a conversation has exploded around bubbles, burn rates, and every investor transforming into an armchair economist on Twitter. Offline, this topic comes up so much in conversation, i wanted to briefly outline my point of view on the matter. I thought about doing a Tweetstorm, but I tweet so much that I thought if I do a Tweetstorm, my followers would kill me. So, here are my thoughts on the matter:
1/ Difficulty In Defining Terms: It’s hard to have a discussion about “bubbles” because different people define them differently. For me, I define a bubble as having two characteristics — one, an environment where overpriced assets have no buyers; two, where people take on debt to buy those assets; and three, where the pain associated with the bubble popping is widespread among a population.
2/ Bubbles As Geometric Shapes In Motion: Additionally, it’s not quite right to ask “Are we in a bubble?” The answer to that is “yes.” The more pertinent question is: “In the bubble we are in, how big is the sphere and how fast is it expanding?” The shape, size, and speed is important.
3/ Current Mood Of Public Markets: It’s not totally easy to go IPO right now. A few handful of tech companies have tried and been rebuffed. The public markets are accepting IPOs with certain fundamentals but rejecting others, and are especially harsh on ones with high sales and marketing engines.
4/ Private Market Slices: The private market is so big now as a result of stricter IPO requirements and more patient capital. Crudely, I slice it into three sub-markets: Amateurs, Pros, and Greed. The amateurs (where I sit) consist of the crowdfunding platforms, the accelerators and incubators, and people like me who invest very early. The Pros outsource this risk to the amateurs, and both sides are happy. The Greed (not stated in a bad way) are there to provide growth, patient, and leveraged capital cheaply to companies which want to stay private longer. (The late-stage greed rounds is where many think a mini-bubble has formed or is forming.)
So, therefore, I believe…
5/ Mini-Bubbles Will Concentrate Pain: My belief is that between the companies funded by the amateurs and the greed rounds, many of those will not live on. Many will be subsumed through M&A or go away. The pros are looking for more and more proof points, willing to pay more for more de-risked opportunities, and the public markets have welcomed a good number of companies with open arms, but also given the Heisman to a few, as well. This time around, folks may be hunting for the small acqui-hire exits or the big M&A exits, and some of those may come at prices below what the cost of capital in the previous rounds.
And, so here we are…what to do? For most people in the early-stage, it’s just the same. Maybe we all should be even more sober about the realities of what’s needed for real institutional financing? Maybe we’re about to hit a zone where AngelList backers and newly minted tech millionaires who dabbled in angel investing start putting up big zeroes on the board? But, we all knew that going in to it. For the later stage folks, tech is still hot — and there’s a vibrant secondary market, so maybe the really expensive shares purchased at $10bn can still find a buy tomorrow at $20bn. It all seems plausible until there’s no one left to buy a share.
People won’t say this publicly, but I hear it all the time — many folks across companies, investment firms, and media properties sort of want a bit of a correction. Talent is very fragmented across companies. Consumers are running out of time in the day to try new apps. Today’s exciting new platforms will take time to bake and get market-ready. That doesn’t mean folks should stop trying — but just a little fear might turn out to be a gift for the ecosystem at large.
A few days ago, my friend @KevinRoose (a reporter for New York Magazine) emailed me for some comments and quotes for an article he published today investigating the use of contract workers by on-demand startups. If you are in this space, it’s worth reading Kevin’s article. He is a good reporter. My quotes didn’t make it in, but as someone who has invested in this space (and uses many of these services as a consumer, too), I asked Kevin if I could post the email I sent to him on my blog. He said, “Sure!.” So, here they are:
Link to Kevin’s article in New York Magazine [link]
My quote to Kevin:
I can’t speak for various startups’ experiences, but I’d imagine (1) [hiring contract workers] makes it easier to start and get things off the ground and (2) many of these jobs may have been contracted out or one-offed prior to the startup matching them.
I am personally not aware of any abuse [of contract workers], and knowing many of the CEOs in this space personally, I am certain this is on their minds. Scale matters, of course. The bigger and more important a company gets, that is likely to come with all sorts of responsibilities. I am not a lawyer, but I’d imagine the recent FedEx ruling is being examined – The Information wrote a good piece on this. (I believe the courts ruled that FedEx had to make those people employees because they were working full time and wearing a uniform, etc. Right now, I’d imagine drivers, delivery-people, and other on-demand labor use different marketplaces to find jobs.)
I don’t believe that the startups we all associate with this are in the crosshairs, but with success comes a spotlight, so if imagine the best companies will address this head-on versus waiting to react.
Regarding a potential backlash to the model – it’s no secret that the American economy is pretty uneven overall. That can create a tense atmosphere. In the on-demand world, there will be some workers who benefit from this shift (more income, higher rates, flexible hours, etc) and some will not like how these changes affected their business.
I’m working tonight on something where I had to catch up on a video clip. I watched Arrington’s interview of Uber’s CEO which kicked off last week’s TechCrunch conference. I didn’t attend that day so missed the talk and posts around it. The entire discussion is excellent and shows many facets of Kalanick that are interesting (to me). But, I wanted to focus on the first five minutes of the talk. You can watch it here [video link].
If you’re a startup CEO or early-stage investor, I’d recommend watching these first five minutes, which expose a nuanced entrepreneurial psychology. In the case of Kalanick, I’d summarize it as follows — he has a certain public image that some don’t like (I don’t know the guy at all), but I do recall an interview he gave over three years ago where he talked about some of his previous companies and those associated struggles. Listening to Arrington, my memory was triggered, so I listened to this long interview [video link] while making dinner tonight. And, it was fascinating to hear Kalanick talk about himself and Uber way back in early 2011. Here’s what I took away from both discussions:
Uber is Kalanick’s 4th Company. He started an SAT prep company, then Scour, then Red Swoosh, and then Uber. He was a serial entrepreneur before starting Uber. I’d bet many folks in tech didn’t know that. I knew about Red Swoosh, but not the others. Interestingly, all but the SAT company were based on P2P relationships and technologies. One has to wonder how deep his intuition around P2P networks was before he started Uber.
An Edgy Chip On The Shoulder: Many folks have chips on their shoulders. Whatever the psychology, folks have to manage it in order to carry on. Kalanick’s chips come from having a failed startup which was sued, and then another where he didn’t pay himself for four years and was living in his parent’s house. (By the way, I’m taking this from the interview in 2011 and this past week.) I imagine it’s hard not to be so aggressive and competitive after having such experiences, and people respond differently to such pressures.
The Uber Killer Is Stress. Speaking of pressure, when Arrington asked Kalanick what could kill Uber, the CEO mentioned “Stress.” The company just hired David Plouffe who orchestrated one of the greatest political campaign in politics, and now has work cut out for him as he grooms a company and CEO to engage in global battles with car industries, city governments, organized labor, upstart companies, and even nations (laws in Germany, fierce competition in China). When I looked at the interview from 2011, I noticed Kalanick’s hair was jet black; today, he has some prominent grey streaks, just like a weathered politician in the klieg lights.
Benchmark’s Series A Call Is The Stuff Of Legends. In 2011, Kalanick retells how, after pitching the entire Benchmark partnership (his only meeting with them), the team asked him to wait and had one of their colleagues sit with him so he couldn’t leave. They deliberated and decided on the spot, and then invited Kalanick back in to do the deal. At the time, Uber was in only two (2) cities! Moreover, in this 2011 interview, Kalanick discusses other things Uber can do — a slew of “on-demand” services (his words) like food, jets, and whatever else people order. Even in this interview, Kalanick is thinking about Uber on a scale similar to Google.
The Traveling Salesman Problem In Computer Science. Kalanick refers to this toward the end of the 2011 interview, essentially explaining a routing optimization problem that has 15 or more nodes getting so complex, even computers couldn’t crack the code. In those types of discussions, you realize Kalanick is not kidding around when talking about math (1580 SAT) and his knowledge of how computers work (CS degree). He is a businessman and salesman on the outside, but within, something else lurks. You can start to see how this “Traveling Salesman” problem may apply itself as Uber experiments with services like UberRush, Corner Store, UberPool, and the extension of its API across the greatest technology market (mobile platforms) we have ever seen.
Most of all this is known already and has been covered fairly well. But, the dots connected for me in a different way this evening. Kalanick and Uber are already quite a powerful force, but when one digs deeper into the elegant simplicity of Uber’s model and the motivational drive of its CEO, you begin to wonder — just how big can this get? What can stop it? What other CEO is psychologically tuned this way and adept in so many interdisciplinary dimensions?
Earlier this week, Bloomberg BETA’s Roy Bahat wrote a post about his views on using the “language of war” in startups. It’s worth a quick read. I wrote back to him and said while it can be crass to use belligerent language, there are probably nationalistic reasons (thinking of companies as nation-states) for why this happens. However, why not speak the language of colonization — yes, another unsavory nationalistic tactic — as a means to discuss strategy, growth, and hopefully winning one’s market? In this light, the language of war connotes a “hard power” of coercion and/or the use of force. Could there be room for the “soft power” of persuasion, public relations, and appealing to hearts and minds instead?
When I wrote back to Roy, he replied, “You should write that.” So, it when on my list, until I just got back to my desk and read the bombshell dropped by The Verge’s Casey Newton, detailing how Uber systematically tried to sabotage Lyft. First, a few things out of the way. This is bad, bad PR. I’m also a fan of Uber, and while I don’t expect any company to always “play by the rules,” this kind of stuff could hurt the arc of the company or, worse, engender an image that they can’t shake. In wanting Uber to succeed, I am hoping they learn from this. (By the way, Verge’s Newton did an amazing job scooping the story; this is the type of investigative work tech blogs should be doing to balance out the optimism of funding announcements and product launches.)
So, we are back to “Hard Power” vs “Soft Power.” The terms were coined and popularized by Harvard’s Joe Nye, a hybrid academic and state department official for many years. Nye’s argument was that as society transforms from materials to information and becomes globalized, a nation’s soft power (favorable policies, culture, attitudes, acceptance, values, etc.) can spread to give those nations a competitive advantage via persuasion instead using the coercive hard power (military/industrial complex, offense, arms trading, etc.). Nye’s world is one in which America should win with its soft power, it’s mindshare, positive PR at scale.
As Roy and I were emailing about this, it become apparent that the leading technology giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. — all use a mix of hard and soft power in concert. To pick on one, Amazon messes with publishers and authors at times, but then buys Goodreads and Twitch and fans love them. Uber right now is winning, no doubt — and they’re using a mix of hard power (against Lyft) and soft power (reducing traffic, drunk driving, etc.) that make them a complex beast. Whereas Google scaled on the back of the Internet with minimal friction, Uber is a network built on top of real world APIs. Uber is coming into contact with our transportation, food delivery systems, messenger routes, ridesharing, and more. Uber can repulse with its hard power, and win hearts and minds with its soft power. It may be easy to criticize from afar (and many of those critiques are likely to be valid), and while we all may want to see soft power at work, the truth of the matter today is that competition is fierce, resources are scarce, people need to get to Point A to Point B, and hard power still has its place in the real world. Drive accordingly.
“Now, our operation is small, but…there’s a lot of potential for….aggressive expansion.” -The Joker, The Dark Knight [video clip]
Every once in a while, a truly world-class technology company emerges. There’s the scale of Apple, building integrated devices and changing the game each time; there’s Amazon, selling books online as a wedge to selling everything we can imagine; there’s Google, leveraging big data to build the world’s premier information company; and, most recently, Facebook, which is on a long march to bring every human on the Internet and connect them to the people, places, and things that matter to them. Each of these companies operate at massive scale, touch all four corners of the earth.
In a place like Silicon Valley, the only natural question to ask is: What’s the next startup most likely to join the pantheon above? After the past few weeks, the answer is easy: Uber.
After all the chatter around Uber’s most recent fundraising, which valued the company at over $18 billion, the company has demonstrated tremendous dexterity and range in launching a number of high-profile initiatives and moves. Specifically, consider the following timeline:
June 2014: Uber raises over $1 billion, valuing the company at over $18 billion.
August 5, 2014: Uber announces UberPool, empowering riders to share rides based on proximity and destination similarity. (Worth noting many observers feel Uber scooped Lyft’s plans to launch Lyft Line, but now it’s moot as both are up and running.)
August 19, 2014: Uber announces the appointment of David Plouffe to run the company’s public policy and strategy. You may have heard of Plouffe, who in the past simply engineered one of the most famous and successful political campaigns of all time with Barack Obama in 2008.
August 20, 2014: Uber announces a “test” for Corner Store in Washington, DC, a service within the Uber app which allows consumers to order basic sundry items, putting the company on a path to be squarely in competition with initiatives from the likes of Amazon and Google, and many startups like Postmates, Instacart, DoorDash, and others.
Consider, for a moment, the complexity of executing on all of these initiatives within a short period of time. Sure, many of these may have been in the works for months and now ready to showcase in a storm of activity, but the bottom line is Uber is not messing around: It is launching new products quickly and taking an experimental approach to continue to iterate and find product-market fit; it is not going to go into regulatory battles unarmed anymore; and they have a killer BD story to sell to hundreds of consumer mobile apps at scale. Launching with 11 API integrations was likely “taking it easy for Uber,” where 11 partnerships for most well-funded startups may be around that total after years of grinding it out.
A final thought. If hiring is a leading indicator of private company momentum, click here and take a gander at the breadth of jobs Uber is hiring for across the world. I’ll repeat that: Across the world! This is where we start talking about real physical scale. Over the summer holidays, a family member on the east coast earnestly asked me if I thought factors X, Y, or Z could hurt Uber. I thought about them, but ultimately answered with the following: “What will stop it?” Right now, I can’t think of anything.